Ghost Rider (2007) / Action-Horror
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Sam Elliott, Wes Bentley, Peter Fonda, Donal Logue, Matt Long, Brett Cullen, Raquel Alessi
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Screenplay: Mark Steven Johnson
One of Marvel's second-tier "superhero" comics combines elements that were popular in the 1970s, including horror influences, motorcycle stunts, and a nomad protagonist who righted wrongs wherever he was needed. "Ghost Rider" wasn't exactly scintillating as far as comic books go, and it never really climbed to the top of the heap in terms of popularity, but the anti-hero did have a unique premise, cool look, and an avid fan following among comic readers who enjoyed both the superhero and horror books of its era.
After several years to get the project off the ground after the popularity of the superhero/horror hit that was Blade, Ghost Rider finally sees the light of the projector, with avid comic book aficionado Nicolas Cage (The Wicker Man, World Trade Center) in the starring role. Unfortunately for the project, the writing and directing chores would go to Mark Steven Johnson, who made a name for himself, though not necessarily a good one, for his work on a previous Marvel big screen adaptation in Daredevil. Like that film, Ghost Rider is given a slick, rock video-style look and feel, but offers just as little in the depth of its characters, rich dialogue, or plot developments. To give him credit, Johnson does know how to stage the action, but reveals just how limited his talent is whenever his characters engage in the act of talking to one another. Perhaps Johnson would have done well to bring in a ghost writer.
Cage stars as motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze, who becomes a household name for his death-defying jumps in packed arenas around the country. As a teenager, Blaze singed away his sold the the devil (Fonda, The Cannonball Run), quite literally, in order to remove his father's cancer, but as part of the bargain, he agrees to become the "devil's bounty hunter", taking the form of a super-powered, flaming skeletal monster with the ability to thwart adversaries with a penance stare. After years of dormancy, Mephistopheles finally cashes in his chips when his son Blackheart (Bentley, American Beauty) arrives, along with three elemental nasties, in order to try to overthrow his father and lay dominion on the world, Although Blaze refuses, he has little say in the matter, as his flaming alter ego takes care of business of trying to dispatch these demons before harm befalls mankind. However, Blackheart soon discovers a weak link in the ghost rider's chain in the form of Roxanne Simpson (Mendes, Trust the Man), a news reporter covering Blaze who also happens to have been his true childhood love he left behind.
It's uncertain just how much of the film's campy qualities are intentional, as the entirety of the dialogue is handled with such a straight-faced delivery. Some of it goes for cheesy laughs, such as Blaze's rabid obsession with the music of the Carpenters, and for some reason, watching shows about monkeys on television. It's difficult to imagine these actors delivering these lines as if they were dripping with heavy meaning, but they do, perhaps thinking an earnest reading would be the only way to keep the film from coming off too much like the joke-fest that marred the debut of Fantastic Four. As laughable as some of it is, intentionally and unintentionally, the hokey nature of Ghost Rider provides the only moments of interest in the entire production.
We care little about the characters or the main story, while the villains lack any depth other than they look scary and do nasty things once in a while. At 114 minutes, it's a a real test of one's attention span, as even the well-rendered action has little in the way of actual logic to it. Ghost Rider finds ways to best his opponents using a variety of different weapons or powers, but we really learn next to nothing as far as how or why he knows how to use these tools or talents.
The best thing one can say about this film version of Ghost Rider is the same thing one can say about the comic book upon which it is based. Quite simply, Ghost Rider just looks cool. With his flaming skull head, studded leather jacket, fire-accented chopper, and a magnificent chain as his weapon of choice, he looks unlike any other hero out there, With a much more fleshed-out origin and actors more suitable to their respective parts, perhaps the rest of it could have matched up to the level of coolness inherent in the look of its protagonist. Alas, it isn't in the cards. Nicolas Cage looks too old for the part; though childhood sweethearts, the adult Blaze looks much older than Roxanne, which shouldn't come as a surprise, since Cage has ten years on co-star Mendes.
Mendes also falls far short of brining any depth into her character (unless you count the depth of her cleavage), and with very limited acting skills, she has a difficult time performing action, showing a sense of fear, or even in trying to evoke any sort of attraction for her lifelong romantic interest. Peter Fonda is cast here as Mephistopheles, probably only due to his most famous of roles in that other great motorcycle film, Easy Rider. Neither he nor Bentley (as Blackheart) exhibit anything remotely close to the formidable menace required to make us quake in our boots from fear.
Unless you are an undiscriminating fan of the "Ghost Rider" comic, or just style-over-substance action films of the most goofy variety, Ghost Rider is too lean in terms of interesting developments, while also taking far too long in getting from A to Z. The film ends with the possibility of a sequel, but given this entry's considerable liabilities (Cage's age and a critical lack of interest generated), the project seems as doomed as the many souls harvested throughout the film itself. Only the visage of the Rider's fiery skull and flame retardant leather jacket merits a blip on the coolness radar; it's too bad that the skulls of those who created such vacuous entertainment were so idea retardant.
-- Followed by Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
©2007 Vince Leo